It has been more than three months since the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County dropped some $7.6 million on Montecito’s Hot Springs Canyon property, but the fate of the 462-acre chunk of front-country foothills remains very much in question. Since the beginning of its public campaign to purchase — then permanently preserve — the McCaslin family’s parcel, the Land Trust has had its sights set on transferring the land over to the U.S. Forest Service as soon as possible for safekeeping. However, for that to happen, certain long-standing claims to water rights on the property by the Montecito Water District and the Montecito Creek Water Company had to be resolved. Now, despite several weeks of behind-the-scenes meetings, public discussions, and brokered compromises, the Land Trust, much to its chagrin, remains in control of the property as lawyers continue to chew over a possible resolution.
At the center of the standstill is the Montecito Water District’s Board of Trustees and its agency’s 16-year-old agreement with the McCaslin family that gives the district rights to the groundwater. While the trustees have all pledged their support for the preservation play, they are in no hurry to potentially jeopardize their water claim, a fact which is of particular concern to the Forest Service, as it has no interest in taking over land that has an existing ownership claim.
This week, feeling that the riddle had finally been solved via the development of a “permanent and exclusive easement” that would allow the district to retain its water rights without it being a deal breaker with the forest service, the Land Trust’s executive director, Michael Feeney, returned to the trustees with the proposal, as well as news that common ground had been found with the Creek Water Company and nearby property owners with various road-access issues. However, despite the fact that the trustees’ own legal counsel, Bob Cohen, said that Feeney’s plan was “pretty good and really close to what everyone was looking for,” the group, led by the concerns of member Dick Shaikewitz, voted to have Cohen continue evaluating the proposed compromise. “I think the consensus of this board is that we would like to
see this happen,” opined Shaikewitz. “I just think we need some more input into it from our attorneys.” There was no immediate date set for the matter to return to